Some people have decided to spend their quarantine productively: baking bread, learning to play a new instrument, or even adopting a new pet. Others, however, are both begrudgingly and enthusiastically embracing the beauty of laziness. Though it is easy to feel guilty for enjoying this newfound lethargy; Otessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, makes us feel a little less alone.
Moshfegh’s novel opens with a young and beautiful woman living in New York City. She lives in a luxurious apartment and has a seemingly endless amount of money due to the passing of her parents. Despite her idyllic life, the narrator, who remains unnamed, is deeply depressed. She decides to sleep for an entire year, describing it as a kind of “reset.” She takes sleeping medications constantly and only leaves her apartment to get food or visit her psychiatrist. Confined to her apartment, she often narrates things that have no choice but to resonate with people’s current feelings during quarantine. The narrator writes, “I felt nothing. I could think of feelings, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me. I couldn’t even locate where my emotions came from. My brain? It made no sense”(137) as she falls asleep to Whoopi Goldberg films.
Like the narrator, many of us are looking for a reset on life. Though it seems impossible, the narrator ends up getting her fresh start. After a year of rest and relaxation (interspersed with moments of stress), the narrator steps outside and enjoys her surroundings. After finally being able to be free from the confines of her apartment, she writes, “there was majesty and grace in the pace of the swaying branches of the willows. There was kindness. Pain is not the only touchstone for growth, I said to myself”(288).
You can purchase Otessa Moshfegh’s novel here.
The debate between digital media and print media is an argument as old as time itself and one that has often divided the reading community. In 2019, 37 percent of people read only print books while 7 percent read only digital books. However, the onset of the pandemic certainly changed this landscape. At a time when public libraries and independent bookstores are facing huge losses, e-books have proven to be a silver lining, especially for those on a tight budget. On Libby, the e-book reading platform that provides access to local libraries, there was an incredible upswing of 247,000 downloads and 10.1 million e-book borrows in just one week.
From turning physical pages to swiping across the screen of a smartphone or tablet, the very structure of reading during COVID-19 has been transformed. Although it is disheartening to no longer interact with beloved booksellers for that perfect next read, online databases of various libraries have gathered and compiled reading lists based entirely on the books borrowed and downloaded by users—a move that opened up a new avenue of discovering our next read. It even goes a step further by cataloging the books with relevant tags for better assistance. As a staunch print book reader and avid library frequenter, access to these resources indeed manifested as a surprise and made for an enriching reading experience!
In the case of audiobooks, Audible recently made thousands of titles available for free for children and adults alike, and people have adapted to new routines, such as listening to a cookbook recipe and following the instructions (without worrying about burning–or worse–staining the pages) or listening to Marie Kondo’s Joy at Work while actually cleaning up their shelves. This is not to say that people no longer continue to purchase print books. In fact, people have requested curbside deliveries by local bookstores. While it is definitely encouraging to see the rise of digital books, it begs the question: has the pandemic changed the way we perceive digital media forever? Or will the prejudice against e-books prevail once life returns to normal?
Over the last few years, mindfulness literature has been a growing subsection of the self-help nonfiction genre. What began as a response to a growing anxiety within America has suddenly come to a head with Covid-19, a crisis just as mental as it is economic.
Amidst this with fortuitously good timing, Marie Kondo, known for her previous New York Times Best-Selling work, the life-changing magic of tidying up, has released a new book titled, Joy at Work, co-written with Scott Sonenshein. Kondo is a Japanese writer focused on the mindfulness and philosophical elements of decluttering one’s home life. Her books, fittingly published in stark white binding with red cover lettering, are beautiful hard-cover volumes that give practical and simple advice to working on the core of one’s home life. At the center of this approach is the idea to sort through items by category based on if they “spark joy” in your life. Her sophomore book is titled Spark Joy, and functions as an illustrated companion work to her first book. Her stance on reducing one’s possessions is refreshing in a time when we are physically unable to go out and spend money.
Kondo’s newest work is particularly applicable now that many Americans are working from home. The bedroom writing desk has been suddenly thrust into the position of full-time workstation. The home is neither physically nor emotionally designed to function as a universal space for all aspects of our lives. We can see this effect in the collective longing for external work and social spaces.
Joy at Work takes the same approach of mindfulness and decluttering that was so critical to finding joy and peace within a home, and applies it to the office for the purpose of maintaining focus and productivity, a task made all the more difficult by the tumultuousness of the present. Mindfulness works like Kondo’s are critical to maintaining a sense of momentum and poise in a time of crisis.
Kondo has unintentionally cued into a Covid-19 zeitgeist of craving in the American public. Much like how Nintendo soothed the youth of America’s need for control and plasticity with their recent Animal Crossing release, Kondo has done the same for the sudden shift in the American work life. If there was ever a time for self-help books to bring about overwhelming positive change in the face of adversity, it is now.
Filed under Books, COVID-19
With the world trapped at home, Americans have had their lives and communities forced into micro focus. Poetry is one expression of day to day life under adversity. Concentrated prose is a natural fit for moments that are small, honest, but also potentially ugly. An artist who expresses this reality like no other is the English writer Billy Childish, whose work examines the grit and grime of the domestic and the industrialized community.
Childish is well known for his poetry collections and longer form memoir. However, he has also had a successful career as a punk rock musician and studio artist. His accentuated British style with tweed, suspenders, and a waxed mustache makes him out to be a living deconstruction of working-class England. As an art school dropout and someone who lived on the dole for over a decade before making a living as an artist, Childish certainly walks the walk.
His poetry books are interspliced with original paintings and prints which create a modern Neolithic style, depicting sex, naked bodies, and misery. These drawings, which feel like neolithic cave paintings, make Childish out to be the artistic intersection between a back-alley addict and a Celtic shaman before the arrival of the Romans. Childish’s poetry is written like a primeval record of a cockney England in its most degenerated form. His writing forgoes the principles of the King’s English in favor of phonetic spellings in lowercase type with minimal or no punctuation. Stanza breaks and enjambment are the reader’s only guide to what feels like the ravings of a drunk outside an English pub. If Bukowski is modern masculinity unveiled in its ugliest and most honest face, then Childish walks that same path back much further to literary tradition of a decrepit England spanning back to the settlement of the British Isles.
His writing contains raw expressions of sexuality and violence. He writes in a poem titled, when the spunk hits yur in the face, “then this bloke says/ ‘ya nans dead’ n its the same man/ who raped you/ then it starts raining/ then someboidy makes yu nob sore/ then all this spunk starts flying atcha// then the bus comers/ but it dont go your way/ it aint half fare…” Childish not only fully displays the raw violence in life, but also a mundane ache and pain that comes with the grime of day to day living. This juxtaposition, combined with strange phonetical spelling and the fearlessness of his subject, makes for fascinating reading.
The poetry of Billy Childish looks at the world with an apocalyptic glee. His focus and introspection is critical at a time when we are all confined to looking at the world through unwashed windows and bad news on the radio. I return to Childish for a connection with an ancient neolithic dread made new by industrialization. Though not uplifting, the poetry of Childish is certainly liberating in its unflinching gaze into the dark night of the city.
Filed under COVID-19, Poetry
In her recent article Fairy Tales and Facts: How We Read in a Pandemic for Lit Hub, Siri Hustvedt posed the question: “if you are well and at home and have enough to eat and can concentrate on a book, do you read toward or away from your fear?” Along with reading Hustvedt, I spoke with novelist Stephen McCauley, author of The Object of My Affection and My Ex-Life, among several other acclaimed best-sellers, to gain an understanding of how different authors are processing the desire to escape into literature during these tumultuous times.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a total immersion in fear. As Hustvedt states, one can, “consume every factual tidbit available about the virus and its spread, the best mask to wear, or how to clean your groceries to avoid contamination.” She goes on to ask, “what could fiction with its imaginary ramblings possibly give anyone at such a time, except an escape into the unreal?” Hustvedt’s answer is an escape to the fantastic. In fairy tales, she explains, “the hero or heroine is tested sorely, but in the end, he or she is rewarded with happiness.” And to the magic in fairy tales, “the laws of nature are overturned and replaced by human desires.”
However, magic is not the only way to find a respite from the fear and facts of the news. As McCauley explained, a piece of fiction can be utterly immersive and calming without the use of witches and evil stepmothers. “I find I’m not interested in reading anything either too grim or too suspenseful. [My] nerves [are] frayed enough as is,” he said, referring to the Covid-19 virus. “Since this leaves out much of contemporary fiction, I’m sticking with classics.” Having not read any Dickens in many years, McCauley has now immersed himself in Little Dorrit. “I’d forgotten what a singular pleasure it is to read Dickens,” said McCauley. “His sentences are lavishly embellished, his plots border on incomprehensibly complicated, and the cast of characters is immense. But once you ease into his style and accept his pacing, it’s spectacularly enjoyable. ‘Oh, good, here comes Flora,’ you think and then settle down for ten pages of the character behaving exactly as you know she will. It’s a thoroughly immersive experience.”
What are you reading under lockdown? Let us know in the comments, or write to us on our Facebook or Twitter.
COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on American industry. In the literary world, one of the great victims is the independent bookstore. Independent bookstores already operate on thin profit margins and compared to giants of media, like television production or tech companies, the brick-and-mortar world of publishing is at the mercy of the market. According to Publisher’s Weekly and The New York Times, independent bookstores in NYC, like the famous Strand, have laid off almost all of their staff. Additionally, Powell’s World of Books in Portland Oregon has furloughed its workforce with the exception of a select few filling out online orders.
However, it is not due to lack of need. In fact, many of us have more time on our hands than ever before to finally finish that 800-page tome on our nightstands. But unfortunately, as bookstores are hemorrhaging rent money and unable to operate, sales are going to Amazon. The giant of e-commerce is perfectly poised to pick up the slack in book sales. Though the company has stated that they are prioritizing the shipment of essential supplies to its customers, its subsidiary AbeBooks can take on some of the overflow. Additionally, many people will likely accept the increased shipping times to purchase their favorite books at Amazon’s usual low prices.
Now more than ever independent bookstores need our help to maintain diversity in the bookselling world. While COVID-19 threatens our health, it is an opportunity for the most well insulated businesses to strengthen monopolistic practices. Though it is a luxury to spend a little extra at a bookstore’s online shop, and you will have to pay shipping (something anyone with a Prime account may have forgotten about), COVID-19 is nothing if not a watershed moment for small businesses across the country. Instead of using an Amazon account, consider placing an order with your favorite bookstore’s online storefront. Or if they don’t have one, try Bookshop.org or another used book retailer like Thriftbooks or eBay. What we do with our wallets in this global health and economic crisis is critical in deciding who is still left doing business when all is said and done.